A note from Kelly King: The topic of today’s article is one that I wish we didn’t need to address. But the truth is sexual assault is a reality we must address. As a leader, how will you respond? How can you be equipped? Ashley’s article will give you some first steps. If you would like more training, consider visiting the Church Cares website here. Our prayer is that you never need to use it, but being prepared now will help you be a better leader. If you would like to hear Ashley teach at one of our You Lead events, she will be in Woodstock, GA in just a few weeks. Register here.
I remember the first time a girl told me she’d been sexually assaulted.
In addition to feeling anger (at the perpetrator) and sorrow (for her and what she’s experienced), I felt powerless. Why? Because there was nothing I could do to change what had happened or to make her feel better.
Unfortunately, she’s not alone in her experience. According to the American Medical Association, one woman is sexually assaulted every 45 seconds in the United States. That’s 80 women an hour. 1,920 women a day. 13,440 women a week, and 700,000 women a year.
Maybe you’re represented by these statistics. If not, you likely know someone who has been sexually assaulted, whether or not they’ve told you their story. But if a woman is brave enough to tell you about her sexual assault, here are five helpful things you can do for her.
Keep in mind that these tips refer to adults who have experienced sexual assault. If the victim is a minor or if the perpetrator has access to minors, report this to civil authorities (Child Protective Services and the police). Furthermore, the age of consent and the statute of limitations vary by state, so know your state’s laws.
1. Provide Safety
Especially if the assault was recent, make sure the woman is physically safe. According to the Department of Justice, three out of four female adult victims know their offender.
Does the woman have a safe place to sleep? Is it safe for her to go about her day? Does she need help creating a safety plan to leave her situation (if she lives with her abuser)? Does she need help securing her safety, and if so, who are the appropriate people to help her in this (the police, an employer, coworkers, community services, family member, friend, church leaders, you, etc.)?
If she does need help creating a safety plan or if either of you have questions about what to do, there are local and national hotlines available to talk through your questions such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE).
2. Provide Medical Care
Once safety is established, encourage the woman to seek medical attention from a medical professional, especially if the assault was recent. If the assault occurred within the last seventy-two hours, it’s best if the woman does NOT shower, wash her hands, comb her hair, change clothes, use the restroom, eat, or drink before being seen by a medical professional.
One thing to keep in mind about a victim of sexual assault is that the moment the assault occurs, their body becomes a crime scene. As much as they, understandably, want to rid themselves of any reminders of what happened, doing so affects DNA evidence that could help identify the perpetrator, and DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours in order to be analyzed by a crime lab.
If going to the hospital with a victim, bring a spare change of clothes that she can change into when the exam is finished. Even if the victim has showered, eaten, etc., DNA evidence of the crime can still exist, so urge her to seek medical attention and have a rape kit done.
One resource you may be unaware of and that you may or may not have in your community is a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner). Some work in hospitals; some work in crisis centers. But if someone has been sexually assaulted, SANEs are specifically trained to provide trauma-informed care to assault and abuse victims and are qualified to collect forensic evidence.
In contrast, your average nurse or doctor does not have this background and is not trained to collect evidence, so if they conduct the exam, it’s less likely the case will be prosecuted (if the victim moves forward with legal action). While a victim does not have to decide in the moment if they want to pursue prosecution, having the evidence collected gives them options, and SANEs can answer questions regarding resources and timelines for decision-making in their respective state.
3. Provide Resources
You may or may not be aware of the resources in your own community. Before a crisis, proactively do an Internet search to find out the following:
- Are there short-term and/or long-term shelters where women can go to escape an abusive situation? (And if they have children, do the shelters accept children)?) If so, what are their requirements?
- Are there local crisis centers or other providers who offer hotlines, exams, counseling services, support groups, etc.?
- What counseling services are available in your community? Are there female counselors who are trained to help people who have experienced trauma? If so, what are the costs of these counseling services? Do they take insurance? Do they allow payment plans?
Another important question to ask is whether or not the woman has health insurance or whether she is eligible for funds provided by local or national organizations to fully or partially cover the cost of medical attention and medication related to the assault. An important fact to note is that most victim compensation funds require the woman to report the crime to law enforcement within seventy-two hours in order to qualify for assistance.
While I’ve provided information about forensic evidence and community resources in this article, present these as options to the survivor. Give the person choices and avoid telling them what she should do. Assault and abuse are about control and demonstrate a power differential. A person experiences powerlessness and a loss of control when she is victimized, and you reinforce that sense of powerlessness and lack of control when you tell her what to do rather than allow her to make choices, even if you disagree with her choices. Respect her voice and her choice. Instead of taking control, empower her to regain some control.
4. Provide Support
What do you say when someone courageously tells you of her assault? Here are a few helpful responses:
- I’m so sorry this happened to you.
- What happened is not your fault.
- I believe you.
- Thank you for telling me.
- How can I help you?
- You’re not the only one who has responded this way. You’re not crazy.
- There’s hope. Things can get better. You can get better.
If a woman chooses to tell you about her sexual assault, that means she sees you as a safe person, so be a conscientious steward of that trust. Thank her for trusting you, and affirm the courage that it took for her to voice what has happened.
While one way you can provide support is by listening to the victim, avoid asking questions about the assault. As a friend or even as a ministry leader, you do not need to know the details of what happened, and it’s not up to you—but to law enforcement—to verify a victim’s story. Instead, ask questions about how she is doing and how you can help her.
Consider this: each time a victim tells her story, it can be just as traumatic for her as experiencing the abuse. She relives the event when she tells about it. So, if she chooses to tell you details, fine, but don’t prod.
Also, know that it’s common for victims to have memory gaps about their trauma, and as a result, they can appear mentally unstable, contradictory, or confused about what’s happened to them. They may even laugh or make jokes as they speak to you. As a result, your first instinct, especially if you know the perpetrator, will likely be to question their story. But err on the side of believing the victim, and if possible, keep your voice even, your body language open, and your movements slow in the conversation with the victim in order to help them feel safe.
Common feelings of victims include fear about what will happen to them, concern over whether or not they’ll be believed, self-doubt about whether they’re overreacting to what they’ve experienced, shame about what has been done to them and what that says about them, and lies about the assault being their fault or something they somehow deserve. So, be careful not to reinforce these lies and negative emotions.
Affirm their value. Affirm that what has happened to them is evil and wrong and that it grieves the heart of God. Affirm that they are not responsible for someone perpetrating a crime against them, for that is what assault is—a crime.
Unfortunately, when telling someone about their sexual assault, victims are often met with comments or questions about what they were wearing, why they were in that location, or why they didn’t scream or struggle when attacked. However, freezing, feigning acceptance until the attack is over, or disassociating are common responses to abuse. In addition to fight and flight, these are additional self-protective responses of our bodies, and we show our ignorance of trauma when we participate in victim shaming for condemning victims for their initial response to their abuse.
5. Provide Hope
The moment someone tells you about her trauma is not the moment to help her see what God is doing in her suffering. That time will come later.
This is also not the time to talk to the victim about forgiving her perpetrator. Does forgiveness eventually need to occur? Yes. But we misapply the concept of forgiveness when we encourage victims to “forgive and forget,” and this position on forgiveness minimizes the pain of their abuse and makes the church a safer place for perpetrators of abuse than survivors of it.
Instead, as a friend or ministry leader, your responsibility in the initial conversation is to listen to understand. Listen more, and speak less. In addition, assure the person of your support for her, and connect her to the resources she needs in order to take next steps.
Furthermore, offer hope. While her experience will influence her in countless ways, it does not define her. It does not have to dictate her future. A victim of abuse has been sinned against, but she chooses how she will respond to that sin.
While you can’t take away a person’s pain or make her situation instantly better, you can remind her of the hope she has for the future because of Christ. God cares about what has happened to her, and He offers ultimate justice and wrath against sin. And in understanding God’s wrath against sin, we understand that all of us need forgiveness because all people have sinned against God (Rom. 3:23).
You can also remind victims that Christ experienced abuse too. While Jesus was not sexually assaulted, He was the victim of brutality and physical abuse at the hands of Roman soldiers. He heard the taunts of the people, calling Him a liar and screaming for His crucifixion. He felt the shame and humiliation of abuse as He hung naked on the cross, carrying the weight of every sin, including every rape, every abuse, every harassment, and every porn view.
But He willingly endured this, so you—no matter your sin—could be redeemed. He died, so you could know the hope of salvation. He died to give hope to the hopeless, freedom to the oppressed, healing to the brokenhearted, and covering to the shamed. He died, so those who turn from their sin and trust in Him could be with Him.
Because of His death and resurrection, we know there’s a day that’s coming when perfect justice will be handed out—the day when “cowards, faithless, detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will face ultimate judgment for their sins in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8).
A day when there will be perfect safety and peace because the new heaven and the new earth will be a place where “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).
A day when there will be no darkness and no sin. Everything will be in the light, and God will be the source of that light: “…because the glory of God illuminates it, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).
A day when…
- There will be no more night terrors or tears.
- No more counseling sessions or medications to help with sleep, anxiety, or depression.
- No more flashbacks or triggers or panic attacks.
- Nor more need for security systems, restraining orders, or looking over your shoulder.
- No more fear of seeing your abuser or knowing they’re out there with the ability to hurt others.
- No more shame or guilt or fear or feeling vulnerable.
A day when “…God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away. Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new’” (Rev. 21:3c-5a).
Because of Christ, this is the hope we have as Christ-followers, and it is a hope we must share with others.
Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Singles 20s/30s Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. While Ashley has a passion for discipling young women, she also loves her city and wrote a children’s book about it called Down in the Ham: A Child’s Guide to Downtown Birmingham. When she’s not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer’s market or trying some new local restaurant.